By Michelle Dupler
Everywhere you look in the Tri-Cities, there are new faces, new businesses and new homes being built. The area is in the midst of economic and population booms that keep ranking it on lists of desirable places to live, work and play. And local experts say the steady growth should continue at least for the next few years.
A slight uptick in population from 2016-17 is part of a larger, long-term trend that shows a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of Tri-Citians since 2000.
The Tri-City metropolitan area grew to 283,830 people from April 2016 to April 2017, or an increase of 1.7 percent, according to the Office of Financial Management’s annual count published June 30, 2017.
Benton County grew from 190,500 residents to 193,500, or an increase of about 1.6 percent. Franklin County grew from 88,670 people to 90,330, or an increase of 1.9 percent.
More than half the population growth in Benton County is accounted for by an influx of new residents, rather than births. In Benton County, net migration accounted for 1,799 of the 3,000 new people in the past year.
The picture was different in Franklin County, where migration brought 411 new residents out of the 1,660 total population increase from 2016-17.
Of the four cities, Kennewick had the greatest population increase, adding 1,160 people over the course of the year. Pasco was close behind with 1,120. Richland added 740 people and West Richland added 320 from 2016-17.
However, the Tri-City area added a whopping 92,008 people from 2000-17, or an increase of about 48 percent.
One thing drawing people to the Tri-Cities is a strong economy with abundant jobs.
Regional Labor Economist Ajsa Suljic said the area is seeing steady job growth that she expects will continue into 2020. The growth in part is due to a local economy that has diversified beyond dependency upon Hanford employment over the past couple of decades.
Suljic noted that in Benton County, the top five industries — government, health care, professional and technical services, administrative services and retail trade — make up more than half of overall employment, compared to Franklin County, where only two industries — agriculture and government — make up almost half of the jobs.
“Benton County is a lot more diversified,” Suljic said.
When looking at year-end numbers, Benton County added 2,500 more jobs in 2016 than 2015, or a 3 percent increase. Franklin County added 530 jobs, or about a 1.6 percent increase, Suljic said.
She said there has been a strong trend in employment in the leisure and hospitality sector as new hotels have been built to address demand for rooms. The leisure and hospitality job sector grew by 12.3 percent year over year from 2015-16 and was the second-fastest growing employment category in Benton County.
“Now, we might stabilize this and next year see how the area feels in terms of extra added rooms,” she said.
Suljic said construction jobs tell another Tri-City success story. Construction dipped nationwide during the 2008 recession and afterward, but the Tri-Cities saw less of a struggle than other parts of the country, in part because jobs at Hanford drew people to the area during the recession.
“During the rest of the recession period, our construction was really only down during 2008 for six to seven months. It started picking up in June 2009,” she said.
Construction slowed in 2011 when Hanford layoffs caused some uncertainty, but Suljic said after a few months, contractors realized that people who had come to the Tri-Cities for jobs weren’t moving away and housing construction was still needed.
“Now we’re seeing record high employment numbers in construction,” she said. “We reached our peak last year and recovered all of the jobs we lost in 2008. Now we’re just making new highs every time we look at construction. … It’s very beneficial for us to see that. Construction is one of the backbones for any area.”
The Tri-City Development Council has been on the forefront of efforts to diversify the local economy for decades. TRIDEC President and CEO Carl Adrian said the process of decoupling the local economy from Hanford started in the 1990s and has become more dramatic in recent years as new industries have been attracted to the region.
A few industries, Adrian noted, have become important to the region and include food processing, which marries its tradition as an agricultural center with technological innovations; health care, as Tri-City hospitals become regional destinations for specialized care; logistics and transportation, as the area’s central location on highways and rail lines makes it a sensible hub in the Northwest; and manufacturing, which is a growing local sector.
“Manufacturing in general has been growing, probably at a faster rate than we’re seeing elsewhere in the country,” Adrian said.
Adrian believes the Tri-Cities will remain a magnet for businesses in the foreseeable future.
“I think we’ll continue to see good, positive growth in industry,” he said. “I don’t know if we can continue to sustain 1.5 to 2 percent per year, but we will continue to be attractive.”
Population growth in the Tri-Cities has gone hand-in-hand with a housing boom. Demand for housing has driven new single-family and multi-family home construction and a robust real estate market with steadily increasing home values.
Dave Retter, owner of Retter & Company Sotheby’s International Realty, said that as of September 2017, there were 687 active residential real estate listings in the Tri-Cities, and numbers dipped as low as 490 at one point.
“We have had 1,200 to 1,400 in a normal market,” Retter said. “Right now, we have the highest number of residents and the lowest number of listings per capita.”
Even with new developments adding listings, the supply has yet to catch up to the demand — especially for homes priced under $250,000.
“I think residents will see existing homes added to the inventory, but we will not get back to 1,200 (listings),” Retter said. “Buyers should have more options, which should be good. … We don’t want to see prices get out of hand like in some of the metro areas.”
Retter said overall, the real estate outlook looks good in the context of a local economy with steady population, construction and job growth, and continued low interest rates for homebuyers.
“I don’t see anything negative on the horizon,” he said. “Jobwise, everything is positive. We’re looking at a good couple, three more years of growth.”
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